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Aboriginal people reacted in different ways to the gorgets and to the people who were given the plates. Some people considered a gorget to be an honour and believed the people who wore them had special status as leaders and heroes. However, other people resented the gorgets and believed that they were simply a further insult from the non-Aboriginal population.

Fortunately there is some firsthand comment in the published memoirs of older Aboriginal people which reveals their opinions about the gorgets. McCarthy believed there was no such record and speculated that gorgets would have been regarded as desirable status symbols:

There is no record of what the natives thought of these plates, but the possession of one of these shining yellow ornaments, an acknowledgment of the status of an individual, even if it were artificial, no doubt gave these trophies considerable value in Aboriginal groups in contact with the whites. [1]

Some Aboriginal people would have agreed with McCarthy, while others held different opinions.

Family history researchers now seek out the gorgets for the clues they provide about people and places and regard them favourably as historic relics. Bill Murray (personal communication), a member of the Cowra Aboriginal community, explained that the gorgets are very important to Aboriginal people because each gorget documents the name of one of their ancestors and at least one place associated with that person.

Cowra people are attempting to collect gorgets from their area for the Erambie Cultural Centre collection. Their aim is to provide a collection of objects which will help local people maintain tangible links with their history.

Windrayne, Bathurst district

Many of the Cowra Aboriginal people identify themselves as Wiradjuri people and share a celebrated ancestor ‘Windradyne’ who was identified as a chief or king in the Bathurst district. [2] He led a resistance movement against the local settlers which culminated in martial law being declared by Governor Thomas Brisbane on 14 August 1824. [3]

Hostilities did not cease until Windradyne, or ‘Saturday’ as he was known to colonists, met the governor and agreed to make peace. He did so at the already mentioned annual government feast held for Aboriginal people at Parramatta, on 28 December 1824. [4]

He signiified his peaceful intentions by wearing a label reading ‘peace’ attached to a ‘little branch representing the olive’ on his straw hat. [5] Windradyne is remembered by both non-Aboriginal and Wiradjuri people as a ‘chief’, a great leader of his people.

He was commemorated by the Bathurst community in 1954 with a memorial plaque over his grave which reads: ‘The resting place of Windradyne, alias ‘Saturday’, last Chief of the Aboriginals. First a terror, but later a friend to the settlers. Died of wounds received in a tribal encounter 1835. ‘A true patriot’ ... Bathurst District Historical Society.’

Mary Coe, a Wiradjuri person, made the point that there is continuity of Aboriginal leaders and that the last ‘chiefs’ have not died. Aboriginal people still look up to particular individuals as natural leaders:

The Historical Society did not understand Windradyne and his people. The Society called him ‘the last chief’. This is wrong. There have been a great many Wiradjuri leaders since the days of Windradyne, right up to the present, and they are continuing the fight for Koorie people’s rights. [6]

King Clyde of the Barwon Blacks

Jimmie Barker, an Aboriginal man who spent some of his childhood on Brewarrina Mission, wrote at length in his memoirs about the meaning of the gorgets to his community and to the people who owned them. Barker, his brother Bill and his mother moved to the mission in 1912:

When we arrived at the Mission one of the most important old people was ‘King’ Billy. When a king was chosen it was important that he should have various attributes. He may be a good tracker or hunter, possibly a part witch doctor; certainly he had to be a man of authority and a good type. He was not really elected by votes, but there had to be some obvious respect from the white authorities and the members of the tribe before he was likely to attain this position.

Age could also be an asset; young men wanted to be elected but it seldom happened. The word ‘king’ came from the white men and in the old days a man would be given this title and a brass breast plate. Peter Flood was self-elected, but this was unusual. A magistrate or some white person of importance was the usual one to make the appointment. [7]

Barker inherited a gorget from a man who had been like a father to him and it became a treasured relic:

I own one of these, engraved ‘King Clyde of the Barwon Blacks’. [8] The last ‘king’ on the Mission [Brewarrina Mission] and in our area was King Clyde. Like King Billy, he was a Muruwari man but was proclaimed king of the Ngemba tribe. His breastplate is still in my possession; he had always wanted me to have it, and I treasured it for many years. [9]

King Billy, King of the Barwon Blacks

King Billy, King of the Barwon Blacks’ (collection number 1985.59.365 ), also known as Billy Kerrigan and Billy McCann, [10] ‘was elected King of the Aborigines from the Darling, Barwon, Bogan, Culgoa, and Mulga, housed at the Brewarrina Mission in 1910.

He died at the Mission in January, 1914’. [11] It is a bonus that the recipient of this plate was known to the man called Jimmie Barker who with help from the linguist Janet Mathews wrote and published his autobiography.

Engraved breastplate.
King Billy, King of the Barwon Blacks

In the work are several references to King Billy including an account of his being made king and receiving the plate now in the National Museum's collection:

Billy Kerrigan ... was a younger brother of Jimmie Kerrigan and later changed his name to Billy McCann. In those days natives often adopted the name of their employer, and this is what Billy had done. He had come to live at the Mission in 1900, and was aged 87 when he died there in 1914. He was made a king and presented with a breastplate inscribed ‘King Billy of the Barwon Blacks’.

Although a Muruwari man, he was ‘king’ of the Ngemba tribe. Before arriving at the Mission Billy had lived an eventful life; he had even committed a murder. Some years earlier I had heard this story from Uncle Jack, who had not wanted to be involved and had refrained from reporting it. ... He was startled that I had heard of it. However, he admitted that it was true when I told him that Uncle Jack had been my informant. [12]

The story of the murder told to Jimmie Barker by Billy is more one of self-defence and an attempt to avoid further trouble. One day, while in the bush digging for bilbis, Billy was disturbed by a ‘white man’ and commanded at gun point to dig a large hole which he suspected was to be his own grave. The man fired at Billy and grazed his arm at which Billy swung around and hit him with his tomahawk.

In fear and haste Billy ‘hit him a couple more times to make certain he was dead ... then he pushed him into the hole ... with his gun ... quart pot ... swag and bridle’. [13] He concealed the grave and his route home and invented a cover story about a ‘ghost cat’ that disturbed his hunting. Billy used the story of the ghost cat’s persistience in bothering him to explain his intentions of leaving the camp. He left soon after the incident:

One day he disappeared, and some time later was reported to be in Bourke. After that he went to Wilcannia, where he stayed for some years. Many more years passed before he returned to Enngonia, and it was on this occasion that he told Uncle Jack his story.

We guessed that the incident probably happened in 1850. In recent years I went out and identified two large trees near Enngonia which had been mentioned in the story. I was not able to locate the exact place where the man was supposed to be buried. [14]

Changing meaning of gorgets

The meaning of the gorgets for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people changed with time. Their initial importance to pastoralists decreased as the need to curry favour with Aboriginal people declined.

In the same way the gorgets ceased to have material value for Aboriginal people and became objects to be venerated or despised according to personal opinion. However, it seems that non-Aboriginal people contributed as much to the negative feelings of Aboriginal people towards the gorgets as they did to the positive.

Barker observed that ‘if ever the old native was ridiculed by the white man it was because he wore these plates’. [15]

McCarthy commented on the use of ‘fictitious’ titles such as ‘chief, duke, prince, king or queen’:

... there are, of course, no hereditary chiefs in Aboriginal society, nor does an aristocracy or a kingship exist among them. There are individuals, both in undisturbed Aboriginal groups and those in contact with the whites, who assert themselves as natural leaders because of their age and wisdom, strength of character, their knowledge of medicine and magic, or by their great fighting qualities, but their position is not inherited generation after generation. [16]

McCarthy’s point is technically correct from a non-Aboriginal, anthropological point of view. However, as indicated above, many Aboriginal people believe the people who became kings and chiefs were natural leaders within their communities.

Aboriginal people know that the words ‘king’ and ‘chief’ are English, but they also know that within their own societies some people emerge as singular leaders. Those leaders became particularly apparent when Aboriginal countries were invaded by British colonisers. Kings were politically, socially, intellectually and physically powerful. Therefore the ‘fictitious’ titles were incorporated by Aboriginal people into their own language and culture.

James Fearnought, King of Merigal

Evidence also suggests that pastoralists encouraged the inheritance of titles from father to son, although with mixed success. For example, when James Fearnought, King of Merigal, died the local grazer presented James’s son, Michael, with a gorget and the title ‘king’. However, Michael rejected the position. He hardly ever wore the gorget and made no attempt to be ‘king’.

[17] When Jimmy, King of the Kalkadoon Tribe, died his son also renounced the position and a man called Big Harry attempted to obtain the title. However, the manager of Busby Park Station ‘pointed out that as he had no country he was ineligible for the title so he was made Prince Henry of Duchess, a mining town in the district’. [18]

Engraved breastplate.
James Fearnought, King of Merigal

One interpretation of the difference between Michael Fearnought’s attitude towards ‘kingship’ and its tangible reminder, the gorget, is that conditions had drastically changed for the Aboriginal people in and around Merigal.

The area is the one with which Jimmie Barker was familiar and the story he tells about the catastrophic social changes experienced by his countrypeople upholds the interpretation.

The social context in which James lived and died (about 1830 to about 1880) was one over which Aboriginal people still had control. However, from the end of the 19th century Aboriginal people in that district had social control wrested from them by the government.

They were grouped with no regard to traditional land and social affiliations on reserves in government designated territory. When James Fearnought died his countrypeople performed the traditional rites of passage, even carving him a tree.

Jimmie Barker explained the breakdown in traditional burial practices to the point where, when his mother died in 1922, he did not even burn her possessions. [19] It would have been difficult for Michael Fearnought to maintain his father’s sense of authority and control in the face of such radical social changes.

Jimmie Barker also noted that by the end of the 19th century kings and ‘king plates’ had ceased to have any real meaning.

Peter Flood, King of Muruwari

[20] Aboriginal people knew whether or not a person was a good choice for the ‘king’ or ‘chief’ and paid no attention to people who did not deserve the title. Jimmie Barker explained clearly that Peter Flood, the self-appointed ‘King of the Muruwari’, had little credibility with the Aboriginal community even though ‘the authorities treated him as someone important’.

[21] Barker did not know if he had been issued with a plate naming him as ‘king’ and his self-appointment diminished his credibility.

Kings chosen by non-Aboriginal authorities, such as the local grazier or the administrator of an Aboriginal reserve, and issued with a gorget were acceptable only if they had genuine leadership qualities. Individuals who fancied a title and obtained it through bullying and underhand measures were not respected even when given official sanction by non-Aboriginal authority figures:

... Peter Flood ... was a rough sort of a man; he swore a lot and spoke about unpleasant things which I should have preferred not to hear ... Peter was ... supposed to be a witch doctor, although I doubt if many people had much faith in him. He was a self-appointed ‘king’ and the whites treated him as an Aborigine of some importance. They built a galvanised-iron house for him at Mundiwa; it was larger than our hut and quite comfortable. For some reason he preferred to live in a bark hut in the bush, and gave us his house. .

.. nobody really believed in old Peter, but he felt that he had some influence in the Culgoa region. In Muruwari he was known as ‘Midjin midjin’, which meant ‘big liar’. They also called him ‘Badanj badanj midjin midjin’, which meant ‘father of lies’. He knew a lot of songs and probably he composed them himself, although he said that the spirits came by night and taught him. The people enjoyed the songs but were unimpressed by his magic or skill, despite the fact that he was reputed to have killed several people by magic.

It was also said that he had killed someone with poison made from hairs and bone and that two other victims had been killed by his bundi and then burnt. Despite all these stories, I learnt to like old Peter. He was good to me and was always willing to take me camping with him and to carry me when I was tired. [22]

The wives of Aboriginal kings were also seen as people of power and importance. For example, King Clyde’s wife:

... was Polly Marshall; she was reputed to be something of a witch doctor. When she was very young she had been wounded in the Hospital Creek massacre of Aborigines. Polly had been hit by two shots in the thigh while her mother was carrying her and trying to run away. There must have been a slight lull in the shooting, and as Polly became very heavy to carry her mother put her under a large log and continued running.

Later that night she sneaked back, collected Polly and took her in the direction of Cumborah. They lived there, hidden in the bush, until Polly became older and married Clyde Marshal [sic] who later became ‘king’. Ever since the massacre she had been unable to walk. [23]

Billbolary, King of the Yarra tribe

The case of Billbolary, King of the Yarra tribe, illustrates the seriousness with which some Aboriginal kings regarded their role. Billbolary had considerable political power and influence within his community. In recognition of that power, Captain Dana and William Thomas, in 1842, solicited his help first when they decided to form a ‘Native Police Force’.

[24] Billbolary spent seven days contemplating the ramifications of the request and addressing the Aboriginal people over whom he was seen to hold sway.

He must have decided to help form the police force because by 24 February 1842, ‘He had the company together, leading the train’. [25] His influence was the instrument for the formation of the native police force. Billbolary told Dana and Thomas that while he would sign up himself for the force he would not consent to riding a horse nor to leaving his country.

A ‘king’ could not leave his territory nor could he be seen to be doing anything he saw as demeaning of his position:

After stating the duties, he signed his name first, not, however, before saying, ‘I am king; I no ride on horseback; I no go out of my country; young men go as you say, not me.’ ... This good man used often, after the first fortnight, to appeal to me, on being ordered to march up and down for two hours; nothing like command would do for him.

I at length brought Captain Dana to consent that he be permitted to be on duty when he pleased, regimentals, gun &c. were at his disposal. Generally an hour before sundown the chief would dress himself, and take it into his head to march to and fro from his lubra’s miam to my tent which invariably was adjacent. [26]

In addition to obtaining the first Aboriginal police recruits Billbolary had enough political power to enable him to intervene on behalf of the colonists in incidents of Aboriginal hostility. He greatly helped them by ‘checking in the bud any jealousy or revenge in the precincts of Melbourne towards the whites’.

[27] Billbolary was also involved with the ‘Mount Macedon Tribe’ in the transfer of land to Batman, Simpson, Swanston and others. It was claimed Billbolary fostered ‘all missionary and other exertions to better his race, he lamented much the deterioration of his people’. ‘He was the last chief recognised as having any power’. [28]

Tommy Bunn-Berrah, King of Swan Reach

Another Aboriginal man who had a keen public appreciation of his status was ‘Tommy Bunn-Berrah King of Swan Reach’ also known as Tommy Bumbench.

His gorget is now held in the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne. Tommy looked upon the position of king as one involving great sobriety and wore his gorget with pride:

The only man I found who might have been fit for a king was one called Tommy Bumbench. Though he only acted upon the fact of having a brass plate yet he never condescended to beg for money ... Tommy Bumbench, a very knowing aboriginal. The fact was Tommy had just enough knowledge to make him conceited he put on extraordinary airs.

In his own idea he was a king as some white man had given him a brass plate which made him think he was a very important personage. ... he was buried at Cunninghame. I put his brass plate upon a strong plank and erected it to show that all that remained of Tommy Bumbench rested there ... [29]

Bobby, Chief of the Yulgilbar tribe

Dame Mary Gilmore remembered the reaction of Bobby, Chief of the Yulgilbar tribe, on receipt of his gorget from her father and his friend Edward Ogilvie of Yulgilbar Station on the Clarence River. [30] (This gorget is now in the National Library of Australia)

Bobbie was a close friend and ally of the Ogilvies although he was regarded as their servant. Bobby twice saved the life of ‘his master’. In the one known photograph of him, Bobby sits to one side of the picture at the grand entrance to Yulgilbar Castle.

Black and white photograph showing an entrance to an estate.
'Entrance to Yulgilbar Castle showing former King of territory [Bobby] sitting in corner on left-hand side and recent King on horseback [Edward Ogilvie]'

The caption pointed out the irony of his situation: ‘the former king of Yulgilbar’ sits almost out of the picture while the ‘present king on horseback’ rides through the grand gates.

When he died, Bobby was buried on Laundry Hill behind the homestead with all the other Aboriginal people who lived on the station. The place had traditionally been an Aboriginal burial site. [31] The gorget was given as much to affirm Bobby’s continuing support of the Ogilvie family as to thank him for the services he had already rendered:

I shall never forget Bobbie’s shining face on the day when the breastplate was presented to him. ... his faithful heart looked out of it. At the hour set for the investment, Mr. Ogilvie stood at the top of the stone steps leading to the door of the castle, his wife and son on his right hand, my father, mother, and I on his left, and the house-servants in a line behind, with Bobbie and his tribe at the foot of the steps.

... Mr. Ogilvie gave a short address, explaining the occasion. Then he called Bobbie up, and, holding the emblem in his hand, asked the chief to take on oath of fealty on behalf of himself and his people to the Ogilvie family, while at the same time Mr Ogilvie gave his promise of food and protection to the tribe as long as they remained on Yulgilbar. [32]

Jimmie Barker’s discursive memoirs also provide some insight into the appearance of non-Aboriginal names on many gorgets and the designation of wide areas of ‘kingship’ to people who were from a specific group:

I have mentioned Billy Kerrigan before ... he ... later changed his name to Billy McCann. In those days natives often adopted the name of their employer, and this is what Billy had done. He had come to live at the Mission in 1900, and was aged 87 when he died there in 1914. He was made a king and presented with a breastplate inscribed ‘King Billy of the Barwon Blacks’. Although a Muruwari man, he was ‘king’ of the Ngemba tribe. [33]

An earlier writer noted that, in the Port Phillip district (now Victoria), ‘the names they assumed, or rather were given to them, were those of distinguished naval or military heroes, or other notable persons. There was Nelson and Bonaparte, General Duncan, Buckley and Old Man Brandy’. [34]


[1] FD McCarthy, ‘Breast-plates: the Blackfellows’ Reward’, The Australian Museum Magazine, 1952, vol. 10, p. 327.

[2] M Coe, Windradyne — a Wiradjuri Koorie, Blackbooks, Glebe, 1986.

[3] Coe 1986, pp 38–43.

[4] Coe 1986, pp 44–46.

[5] T Salisbury and PJ Gresser, Windradyne of the Wiradjuri: Martial Law at Bathurst in 1824, Wentworth books, Sydney, 1971, p. 37.

[6] Coe 1986, p. 62.

[7] J Barker, The Two Worlds of Jimmie Barker: the Life of an Australian Aboriginal 1900–1972, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1980, p. 72.

[8] Barker 1980, p. 5.

[9] Barker 1980, p. 75.

[10] Barker 1980, p. 73.

[11] Milne, EO, Edmund O Milne’s photograph album, National Museum of Australia, Milne Library item No. 11, nd.

[12] Barker 1980, p. 73.

[13] Barker 1980, p. 74.

[14] Barker 1980, pp 74–75.

[15] Barker 1980, p. 5.

[16] FD McCarthy, 1952, vol. 10, p. 327.

[17] J Jones, Letter from J Jones, Hotel Metropole, Sydney, 22 February 1912 to E Milne Esq., District Superintendent, Orange, manuscript, National Museum of Australia, 1912, EO Milne collection, file no 85/310, folios 152–53.

[18] McCarthy 1952, p. 329.

[19] Barker 1980, p. 128.

[20] Barker 1980, p. 73.

[21] Barker 1980, p. 5.

[22] Barker 1980, pp 19–20.

[23] Barker 1980, p. 75

[24] W Thomas, ‘Brief account of the Aboriginal in Australia Felix’ in T Bride (ed.), Letters from Victorian Pioneers: a Series of Papers on the Early Occupation of the Colony, the Aborigines, et cetera. Addressed by Victorian Pioneers to his Excellency Charles Joseph La Trobe, Esq. Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria, 1898, Curry O’Neil, South Yarra, 1898, p. 404.

[25] Thomas in Bride 1898, p. 404.

[26] Thomas in Bride 1898, pp 404–405.

[27] Thomas in Bride 1898, p. 405.

[28] Thomas in Bride, 1898, p. 405

[29] JM Bulmer, Bulmer Papers No. 13, quoted in part in Breastplates in the Museum of Victoria, manuscript, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, nd.

[30] WF Whyte, ‘Supporters of “Australian” Coat of Arms’, cutting from unnamed newspaper in National Museum of Australia, EO Milne Collection, file no 85/310, folio 83, 1949.

[31] G Farwell, Squatter’s Castle: the Story of a Pastoral Dynasty, life and Times of Edward David Stewart Ogilvie 1814–96, Landsdowne, Melbourne, 1973, p. 286.

[32] Gilmore in WF Whyte, ‘Supporters of “Australian” Coat of Arms’, cutting from unnamed newspaper in National Museum of Australia, EO Milne Collection, file no 85/310, folio 83, 1949.

[33] Barker 1980, p. 5.

[34] A Joyce, Homestead History Being the Reminiscences and Letters of Alfred Joyce of Plaistow and Norwood, Port Phillip 1843 to 1864, James, GF (ed.), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1949, p. 88.

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